The Philadelphia 76ers entered the season with a major hole at point guard with Ben Simmons sitting out as the ongoing trade saga continues to unfold.
In his absence, they’ve adjusted on the fly, handing the keys to the offense to second-year guard Tyrese Maxey. The 21-year-old has more than seized his opportunity as he continues to show his potential as a lead guard, putting himself in the conversation for Most Improved Player of the Year.
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“He’s just coming on, he’s learning, and he’s still got a lot to learn,” 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said.
“He’s never played the position in his life. He’s always been a scoring guard. We call him the mini-scorer, obviously. He’s been great. He’s starting to call sets. He’s starting to direct guys to get in the right spot. You know, that position is probably the toughest because you have to not only know yours, but you have to know everyone’s spot. You have to know what you’re looking for every time you run a set. It just takes time, and I’m patient with it. I’m in no hurry.”
When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see that his production doubles along with his minutes. But the fact that he is scoring the ball more efficiently on a higher volume of shots and his assist-to-turnover ratio sits at 3.77, compared to 19.4 last season, stands out in particular.
Per Cleaning the Glass, his 7.3 turnover percentage is the lowest among point guards across the entire league.
With more time on the court and more offensive responsibility, his game is tightening up and he’s only getting better.
Without Simmons in the lineup, the 76ers’ transition game has all but evaporated, plummeting from 12th in pace last season to ranking dead last to start this season. Maxey has been the lone bright spark, getting up and down the floor with his lightning-quick speed, catching opposing guards out — something head coach Doc Rivers wants to see more of.
“I’m glad he was aggressive,” Rivers said after their game against the Utah Jazz on Thursday night. “I want him to keep getting to the rim, use his speed. It was good to see him at the rim a couple of times (vs. Utah). That to me is what I like; that’s what he’s not done. He’s not been at the rim at all [recently]. And the league will take the floaters and the in-between game, but they can’t handle him when he gets to the rim … so that’s what we need from him.”
Maxey’s floater has become one of his most dangerous weapons with his ability to beat his first man and get a high release over opposing big men, resulting in him shooting 48.4 percent on those shots. But as Rivers mentioned, when he gets downhill and attacks the basket, he’s a whole different problem.
The former Kentucky guard is shooting 58.3 percent on shots within five feet of the basket and among point guards who attempt at least 5.0 shots within five feet per game, Maxey ranks fourth in the league for field goal percentage behind only Malcolm Brogdon, Ja Morant and Collin Sexton.
Maxey enjoyed an especially productive stretch in November, highlighted by back-to-back 30-point performances against the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, becoming the youngest player in 76ers history to do so.
With Embiid and Tobias Harris sidelined for nine and four games, respectively, due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Maxey stepped up as the 76ers’ primary offensive weapon, averaging 23.7 points on 48.8 percent shooting and 42.1 percent from deep.
“I think it’s just confidence, being myself, helping the team the best I can,” Maxey said. “I think now I’ve become a little more comfortable with it and just trying to do my part and help us win.”
Embiid has played in the 76ers past seven games (4-3) and looks back to his MVP level, and as they revert back to running their offense through the All-Star big man, Maxey has seen his touches go down as he tries to navigate his role with the team back to full health. In those seven games, Maxey’s numbers have dropped to 9.7 points per game on 32.3 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from the 3-point line, but Rivers isn’t too concerned with the recent blip.
“Where people get lost is when Joel is out, someone’s gotta score,” Rivers told FanNation’s Justin Grasso last week. “That’s just the way it is. When Joel and Tobias are out, someone’s gotta score. When Joel, Tobias and Seth [Curry] are out, someone’s gonna score more points.
“So when they come back, that doesn’t mean that same someone’s gonna score the same amount of points. It’s asinine to think that way, you know? He’s gonna be aggressive, and we’re going to keep him aggressive. He just didn’t play well the other night. That’s gonna happen. It wasn’t just him — I didn’t think we played well as a group.”
As Dec. 15 approaches — the date the majority of free agents signed this past offseason become eligible to be traded — and any potential deals for Ben Simmons begin to gain momentum, the 76ers will no doubt be looking for an All-Star-level point guard in return. But as Maxey continues to blossom into a productive scorer and playmaker leading their offense, he could just be positioning himself as their point guard of the future.